John Robert Brown

Working for a few days in Hong Kong, I spent one lunch hour exploring the city's Zoological and Botanical Gardens, just above the city centre on the way up to Victoria Peak, where I came across the Bamboo Garden.

Bamboo is a type of grass, not a tree. The Bamboo Garden in Hong Kong is planted with a wide variety of bamboos. Muli produces pear-like edible fruit. Black Bamboo is food for the famous giant panda. Square Bamboo has edible shoots, and Weaver's Bamboo is used in handicrafts and bamboo ware. There are about 120 genera, with more than one thousand species of bamboo worldwide. In China alone, there are 57 genera encompassing more than 400 species, which account for almost one-third of the world's bamboo collection. A notice tells me that Bamboo gets its strength from the hollow cylindrical form of its stem, consisting of a thick rigid inner and outer layer filled with tightly packed fibre.

Bamboo still has great economic value. Incredibly to western eyes, Hong Kong's twenty-first century buildings - numerous, large, modern and stylish - are still constructed using bamboo scaffolding poles. Ninety percent of the scaffolding used in the city is of bamboo, which is said to be swifter to erect, lighter in weight, more flexible and cheaper than the tubular steel poles we see in northern Europe and North America. Bamboo poles also cope well with tensile stress - and of course there is great beauty in bamboo's low-tech appearance.

The scaffolding profession even has its own deity, separate from that of the building trade - the same deity as that of Cantonese opera troupes, which may be connected with the fact that bamboo is also used for the construction of traditional opera stages.

Besides being used for making scaffolds and opera stages, there are bamboo sleeping mats, fishing rods, pipes and various other bamboo wares. Believe it or not, it is still possible to buy bamboo needles with which to play 78rpm records!

Bamboo is used to make the traditional Japanese shakuhachi wind instrument, a type of fat end-blown keyless flute with a soft, haunting, tone. Shafts for timpani sticks and reeds for woodwind instruments are made from bamboo, and there is even a bamboo gamelan, an Asia-Pacific instrumental and vocal ensemble, mainly consisting of xylophones, percussion and voices, encountered in Java and Indonesia. Banyumas, in Central Java, is home to a unique ensemble known as calung (chalung). All of the instruments in the calung, including a kind of trumpet which imitates the gong (!), are made of bamboo.

Now, western musicians can even purchase bamboo saxophones via the internet. Eric Dieter Claremont, a German musician now living in Thailand, uses 17 angular cut bamboo sections to achieve the curve in the body. The instruments are offered in five sizes, baritone, tenor, alto, curved soprano and straight soprano, and come ready to play with a standard saxophone reed, a leather-and-brass ligature, bamboo mouthpiece cap and an instruction booklet.

Lest you are inclined to be dismissive about this instrument, be assured that it is not a toy. Each is hand crafted, can play a chromatic scale of one-and-a-half to two octaves, and is tuned to A 440. Several jazz, rock and blues celebrities appreciate the warm sound of these bamboo saxophones, and owners include famous saxophonists Richie Havens, David Murray, Ornette Coleman and Dave Liebman - a great example of combining low tech with high fashion..

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